IRELAND — President Barack Obama paid a joyful visit Monday to the small Irish village where his great-great-great grandfather once lived and worked as a shoemaker, an improbable and memorable pilgrimage for America’s first black president into his Irish past.
Along with first lady Michelle Obama, the president walked the thronged Main Street of quaint Moneygall, where his ancestor on his Kansas-born mother’s side, Falmouth Kearney, lived until leaving for the United States in 1850 at the height of Ireland’s Great Famine. Obama’s roots in the town were discovered during the 2008 presidential campaign.
The president raised a pint of Guinness in Ollie’s Bar, held up a baby and shook innumerable hands. He took a look at Kearney’s baptism records – the documents that established his connection to the town – and even got to meet, hug and drink with a distant family member: Henry Healy, a 26-year-old accountant for a plumbing firm.
For the president, it was a quick detour from Dublin on day one of a six-day, four-country European tour that will involve working with allies on knotty problems of war, peace and economic growth. Monday, though, was about a colorful journey into a part of the president’s ancestry he hasn’t fully explored, and that many Americans might not even know about. Obama sought to change that as he endeared himself to the Irish populace, and in turn perhaps to millions of Irish American voters in the U.S.
“For the United States, Ireland carries a blood link with us,” Obama told Ireland’s prime minister, Enda Kenny, in Dublin, before setting out by helicopter for the 90-mile journey southwest to Moneygall.
Once there he set out to prove that like so many others, he has a little bit of Irish in him.
The first couple spent extended time greeting Moneygall residents who had withstood soaking rain earlier to see them. The thrilled villagers responded by waving American and Irish flags and breaking into periodic cries of “Obama! Obama!.” Both of the Obamas stretched to shake seemingly every hand they could reach.
“Absolutely fabulous,” said Ann McCormack, a 39-year-old housewife said after shaking Obama’s hand. She said the town will be talking about this day forever. “We’ll take it to our grave,” she said.
Residents in the village of about 350 had been eagerly anticipating Obama’s arrival, applying fresh coats of paint to their homes, patching up the sidewalks and hurriedly building a coffee shop called – what else? – Obama Cafe.
Guinness last week delivered a specially brewed keg of stout to be poured the moment Obama walked through the door of Ollie’s Bar, which sports a bronze bust and life-size photo cutout of the president.
The president told those invited in the pub that the Irish have had a powerful impact on American culture, and he spoke of the warmth and friendship between the peoples of Ireland and the United States. Obama spoke affectionately about his ancestral ties to country.
And “with that,” he declared with eagerness, it was time for a pint.
On the bar, a Guinness was already lined up and waiting for him.
“You tell me when it’s properly settled. I don’t want to mess this up,” Obama told the bartender. “I want to get it perfect.”
Then he raised the glass to a huge whoop of cheers, and took a big sip to more applause. “I realized it tastes so much better here than it does in the states,” he said to laughter. “What I realized was that you guys, you’re keeping all the best stuff here. “
Then it was back into the street for more handshakes and cheering. From there Obama was headed back to Dublin to deliver an open-air speech at College Green, the same spot in the center of the city where Clinton drew a massive crowd for a speech during his 1995 trip to Ireland.
Earlier, after traveling overnight from Washington aboard Air Force One, the president and first lady Michelle Obama met Ireland’s President Mary McAleese at her official residence, and Obama participated in a tree planting ceremony as children rang a peace bell marking the 10th anniversary of the Good Friday accord.
Obama then met the prime minister, Kenny, and told him: “The friendship and the bonds between the United States and Ireland could not be stronger. Obviously, it is not just a matter of strategic interest. It’s not just a matter of foreign policy. For the United States, Ireland carries a blood link with us.”
The president, who has struggled very publicly in recent days with his own role trying to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians, also told Kenny “how inspired we have been by the progress that’s been made in Northern Ireland. It speaks to the possibilities of peace, and people in longstanding struggles being able to reimagine their relationships.”
Obama’s one-day visit to Ireland came just days after Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II visited the Emerald Isle, the first trip to Ireland by a British monarch in about 100 years. The back-to-back visits have given the Irish a much-needed reason to celebrate as they struggle to climb out of the financial hole created by the collapse of the country’s banks and housing market.
Gripped by debt, Ireland was forced to take a bailout from the European Union and International Monetary Fund in November that could total $100 billion. The rescue package came with stringent conditions that will lead the Irish to slash 25,000 jobs from the state payroll, leaving many in this country of 4.5 million with deep uncertainty about their financial future.
After spending the night in Dublin, Obama heads to London for a two-day state visit at the invitation of the queen. He’ll then travel to Deauville, France, to meet with the heads of leading industrial nations, before ending his Europe trip with a visit to Poland, a strategically important Central European ally.
An overarching theme of Obama’s trip – his eighth to Europe since taking office – will be to reassure the region that it still has a central role in U.S. foreign policy, even though Obama has put a premium on boosting U.S. relations with Asia and emerging markets elsewhere in the world.
The president is expected to emphasize the need for the U.S. and Europe to be in lockstep against the backdrop of sweeping unrest in the Middle East and North Africa, not only in the NATO-led bombing campaign in Libya, but also as financial backers for countries in the region, like Tunisia and Egypt, that are pressing forward with democratic transitions.